LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw could be on the verge of a fourth Cy Young Award, and only Roger Clemens (seven) and Randy Johnson (five) have more. Kershaw also just led the National League in wins (for the third time) and ERA (for the fifth time). But will he finally add a World Series title to a career otherwise worthy of the Hall of Fame?
Kershaw will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile on Friday (TBS) at Dodger Stadium against the D-backs. It's his seventh postseason seeking the ever-elusive ring, and the second straight coming off a back injury. He has a 4.55 ERA in 18 career playoff appearances (14 starts).
Most of Kershaw's season-ending stats are typically sterling this season, but one stands out as atypical -- home runs allowed. He's got company, as more home runs were hit this year than ever, but Kershaw has earned a reputation for being better than the rest.
Despite a total of just 175 innings because of time on the disabled list, his 23 homers allowed are seven more than his previous high (over 227 2/3 innings in 2012). That includes the first grand slam he's ever allowed in the Majors. On a per-batted-ball basis, Kershaw is allowing big flies more than twice as often as in 2016, according to Statcast™. His average exit velocity and distance allowed on fly balls and line drives has increased, and he is more frequently allowing hard-hit flies/liners (those with a 95-plus mph exit velocity).
His barrel rate, which classifies the most optimum hits, is also way up. Last year his 4.5 percent barrel rate ranked 22nd of 122 pitchers who gave up at least 300 batted balls. This year, he ranks 69th of 128. And the home run distances are way up, too, nearly 20 feet further.
"The only thing I can say is he's made more mistakes than he normally would in a season," said manager Dave Roberts. "When guys are swinging harder, they have a tendency the last few years to slug more. Hitters hit mistakes. A direct reflection of a homer is a hitter hitting a mistake. So, I guess he's making more mistakes. That's as simple as it gets."
Kershaw doesn't argue with the stats, nor does he reveal a strategy for countering them.
"I just have to pitch better," he has said several times this year.
Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt was there for Kershaw's first Dodgertown bullpen session at age 19 and every pitch since. He insists that whatever Kershaw has lost through injuries and time are balanced by the pitcher's maturity and wisdom.
"The other day he touched 94 several times," Honeycutt said of Kershaw's velocity. "That's closer to where he's at, but he's also smarter. He's pitching more, using both sides of the plate. I think he always goes out there and knows what he's trying to do. That's why he continues to be outstanding, being able to command both sides. His 92 to whatever he has that day is still effective. He's still coming at you, that's always his mindset."
The circumstantial evidence: a herniated disk and a lower back strain the past two seasons, slightly lower fastball velocity, mistakes hit for homers. During this season, Kershaw has effectively utilized more fastballs away to right-handed batters and a harder slider Honeycutt termed "cutterish."
Kershaw hasn't rebounded from this year's back injury as impressively as he did last year, when he had a 1.29 ERA in five September starts. This year before the injury, he was 15-2 with a 2.04 ERA. In six starts after the injury, 3-2 with a 3.48 ERA.
"Now I feel I'm right back where I should be and ready to go," he said after allowing three runs in four innings at Colorado on Saturday night.
Kershaw said after that start he's "100 percent." Honeycutt assumes that the aches and pains of a decade on the mound leave Kershaw something less than that.
"I'm not really sure that will ever be the case again -- who knows?" Honeycutt said. "I'm sure there are days he feels better. He's able to manage where he's at extremely well."
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2001. Daniel Kramer contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.